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What are the Symptoms of Tetanus?

Mary McMahon
Updated Feb 05, 2024
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Tetanus is a very rare disease caused by a bacterial toxin. This disease is rare because a vaccine exists for tetanus, and many people keep up their vaccines and receive prompt vaccination if they are at risk for tetanus. As a general rule, people need the vaccine every 10 years, and if they have not had a vaccine within five years and they have a deep or very dirty wound, a booster vaccine may be recommended.

This disease develops when the Clostridium tetani bacteria enters the body through a wound. These bacteria produce a toxin which causes muscle spasms, and symptoms of tetanus classically appear between five and 15 days after exposure. People with deep puncture wounds are at especially high risk of tetanus, as are people who are injured in dirty environments.

One of the classic signs of tetanus is muscle spasms, especially around the face and throat. In fact, the condition's alternate name, “lockjaw,” references the severe muscle spasms which some patients experience. The muscles are also usually stiff and sore, especially in the early days of the disease, and the pain can be concentrated around the back and neck.

Other symptoms of tetanus include: fever, urine retention, sweating, difficulty swallowing, irritability, sore throat, and anxiety. Soreness around the site where the bacteria were introduced is also common, and the area may appear red and inflamed. The patient can also develop severe pain in the spasming muscles, and he or she may develop an airway obstruction as the muscles around the throat contract. If the airway becomes compromised, the patient is at risk of death.

The treatment for tetanus involves administering an antitoxin to counteract the effects of the bacterial toxin, and antibiotics to kill the bacteria so that they will stop producing the toxin. Patients may also be given muscle relaxers to ease the muscle spasms, and patients with airways which are at risk may be put on a ventilator.

While it is most definitely useful to be able to recognize the symptoms of tetanus, preventing tetanus is very important. Getting regular tetanus shots will reduce the risk of tetanus, and people who are not sure about when they last received a tetanus shot should talk to their doctors. When someone is wounded, the wound should always be properly cleaned and flushed to discourage infection, and people with deep, ragged, or dirty wounds should be taken to a doctor for evaluation whether or not they develop the symptoms of tetanus, as early treatment can prevent complications.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments
By anon310320 — On Dec 21, 2012

I cut myself while opening a can of black olives. The cut is a little over half an inch long and I did bleed. I washed it as soon as I cut it, literally like two seconds later. By the way, it is right under my thumb on my left hand. But now on the opposite side I'm getting pain in my wrist. I cut myself yesterday and I kept it fairly clean.

I don't think I have gotten my vaccine in at least 12 yrs. so I'm a bit scared I might have contracted it due to the fact that last night before bed I started getting pain in my wrist. I ignored it, and now it's worse.

Like I said, it's on the same hand but on the opposite side of the cut. Does this sound like a symptom of tetanus? Please respond, anyone with any advice. I have health insurance, but it will cost me $25 to see my doctor, and I don't want to go and me not have it and wasted those $25 during our Christmas holiday. Please help.

By anon81873 — On May 03, 2010

Is it possibly to get a sore throat and other flu like symptoms after a tetanus vaccine?

By anon60877 — On Jan 16, 2010

On Monday I got a deep puncture in my thumb. It bled and I was sure it was clean, but 12 years since my last tetanus shot. Next day I got a shot at a pharmacy. Always my arm would be very sore have tight lump for a couple months. This time the shot absorbed immediately. There is a dark bruise but that is all.

Does that mean the antibodies had to be put to work immediately? Is it possible that I may have had tetanus bacteria in my system?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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